I can still feel the gentle thump, thump, thump of tires on the road and the aroma of fried chicken and still-warm german potato salad wafting forward from the back of the station wagon in the middle of the night. Some sights and sounds stay with a person all their lifetime.
I’ve talked (in previous blogs) about our family routine when my dad worked for Wisconsin Electric Power — rotating three shifts every 30 days — and how on the fourth weekend of the cycle we usually took a three day trip somewhere. A “three day trip” meant leaving after work on a Thursday when dad had already put in “Thursday’s Hours” (so technically we were already on Friday) and getting home sometime on Sunday. It was closer to four days but somehow we never called it a “four day trip.”
By the time I was old enough form memories of these trips we had visited most places of interest to us within 500 miles. So it became part of the “trip” to drive through that first night to get someplace “interesting” — which really meant “newer than seeing the old stuff one more time”
Carry along meals — not really picnics because that first night we tended to nosh on whatever mom had put together in fits and spurts through the night as someone got hungry. By morning the food was gone, we had arrived somewhere that we would spend the next two days exploring and sometime on Sunday we’d head back home with my dad complaining about Sunday Afternoon Drivers! (not a lot — dad wasn’t a complainer, but I’ll bet every trip heard ONE such complaint after which we all went back to enjoying the scenery).
Peg and I haven’t had the same kind of road-food rituals. Back in the days when our travels were limited to annual vacations and weekend trips to conferences, etc., we frequently travelled on a weekend but never developed those sort of homey routines. Oh, we’d stop at McDonalds — in the days when McDonalds was brand new on the scene it was just a regular hamburger and an order of fries. By the time they’d figured out that fast food could include breakfast I discovered Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuits — always the sucker for any baked bread product. I didn’t really care what was ON the biscuit — as long as it was a Biscuit. I guess Peg & I didn’t grow up through the depression and for a while fast food didn’t seem as objectionable as it does to us today.
Through the years I continued traveling for work/business. In a truck, in a motorcoach, and also as a service representative, and later on photo safaris. Fast food became boring and all I — all we — wanted was to find GOOD food. For a few years we fell into the trap of thinking that good food had — by definition — to be expensive food. We looked up all the new gourmet places, followed the latest trends in cooking. Of course all of that was before the days of the “celebrity chef” — these were hard working cooks who stayed in their own kitchens and produced some masterful items.
But the thing about travel is that when you’re in a small town you probably aren’t going to find a 5 star restaurant; what you will find is a diner or a cafe that everyone in town patronizes for the simple reason that the food is terrific. It might be common — which is to say something that a lot of people try to cook — but if the parking lot is full enough that usually means either the food is dirt cheap or very good. So it was that we turned our attention from fancy gourmet vittles to down home eatin’.
To this day we still look for the mom & pop store, the one-of-a-kind restaurant that used to exist all over the country but now are disappearing from the scene. We’ve learned that just because a place looks like a diner doesn’t make it a diner. And in recent years just because there are a lot of cars parked in the lot doesn’t mean it’s great food — sometimes it just means they have a big lot on a road where food options are scarce.
Of course when we were full time RV’ers we’d commonly eat our own food wherever we happened to be — stopping along the way where necessary. A functional refrigerator and stove and the room to move about while cooking makes eating on the road much easier.
When we find ourselves doing the motel thing — now that we are back to traveling by car — we carry an old fashioned attache case with corkscrew, paper/plastic plates, silverware, knives, salt & pepper, napkins, a cutting board. Closed — it makes a nice laptop table, and inside are all that we need for an impromptu picnic or evening meal in a hotel room. So many groceries include in their offerings rotisseried chicken and other hot menu items as well as salads and starches that picking up a meal for much more reasonable prices than eating at a restaurant has become a preferred choice.
That way we get greater control over what we are eating and over quantities. A small bottle of olive oil and another of balsamic and we can even do our own fresh salads. Many motels offer microwaves — though we prefer not to buy frozen pre-prepared food (too many preservatives and ingredients we can’t pronounce) — so if we are so inclined we can even do hot food on the cheap.
I don’t feel as if we are returning to my roots — the idea of frying a big bowl of fried chicken isn’t appealing to me — I don’t like the process of deep fat frying anymore. And I don’t make my hot german potato salad the same way my mom did. She used too much bacon fat and too much salt, and too much sugar. But quick and easy are still at the top of my travel list.
When I think back on those days — traveling cross country in a lumbering old station wagon eager to see what the world has to offer I can’t but help think about the contrasts. Before I was born my parents visited my dad’s parents in Chicago and they could not make a trip from Milwaukee in either direction without having a flat tire. By the time I came along they hoped that they could make both legs without a flat. I had a flat tire here about 2 years ago. That was the first flat I’d had in 5 or more years. Travel is easier. Today it can be less expensive — on a scale of percentage of income expended — unless of course you want to be extravagant. If you want extravagance there is never a scale.
Our grandkid is getting married this spring. We found that in lieu of housekeeping presents they have put up a page in one of the “fundme” sort of websites where well wishers can contribute to their honeymoon. They are planning mad dash to Iceland / France and I’m sure they’ll have a blast. But it made me ponder on how things change. It’s an interesting thing they are doing. Goodness knows if you’ve been together for a while and already have a bunch of household stuff that maybe cash-on-the-barrelhead isn’t a bad way to go. It’s not something we would have done — but heck, when we were their age that sort of choice didn’t even exist.
I’ve done the trans-atlantic thing enough times that it’s not new anymore. That novelty excitement isn’t there. Oh, there are places I might still want to see but I no longer find air travel as appealing as once I did: wandering through O’hare airport in search of the right departure gate and a ‘meal’ of industrial food gobbled down at 35,000 feet isn’t something I look forward to. I would enjoy the verdant hills of Tuscany once I got there, or a field of sunflowers and lavender in sunny Provence, but I can find verdant hills here and lavender and sunflowers too.
In the past we have done train travel. In the early 90’s I did Sydney to Perth and back again on Australian railroads and about half way across the Nullarbor Plain the novelty of the longest stretch of STRAIGHT train track in the world loses it’s appeal: 297 miles of straight track are just… 297 miles of STRAIGHT TRACK with no trees in site. Of course AMTRAK gives you more thrills — we have done the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle — but then the prettiest mountains of that trip you pass through in the middle of the night so I guess there’s no real comparison there. I might be tempted to do VIA — the Canadian Rail — cross country but we have no plans at the moment.
But when it comes down to it — I still like a good old fashioned road trip. The Fried Chicken and Potato Salad are optional, but I like my own wheels when I get there and I like making my own pace. Katy will be here in a few days and I’m looking forward to hearing the hum of the wheels, so much asphalt here in S. Texas that the thump, thump, thump of tires on concrete isn’t so noticeable and cars are quieter now. Maybe we’ll have to stop some place and eat chicken and ‘tater salad.
Thanks for stopping along our unscripted trip through life.